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The Marquis de Leech

The Decline of the West, by Oswald Spengler

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After a good fortnight's reading, I have managed to work through the two volume, unabridged, edition of Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West (1918-1923). It's not light reading, not at all, and the sheer size of the combined volumes makes it a proverbial door-stopper. But it is unquestionably interesting reading, so I thought I would review a work few now bother with. In recent years it has even become strangely topical - but we'll get to that.

As a background, Spengler was a German polymath, moonlighting as a school teacher. His interests were spectacularly broad, and he is not afraid to show it - The Decline of the West is not a history book in any conventional sense, nor is it even a philosophical text (though that is a better fit). It is nothing less than a monumental attempt at fitting the sum of human learning into a particular historical framework. A uniquely pessimistic framework at that, one inspired by Goethe and Nietzsche, and one best remembered for Spengler's view that grim determinism will bring an end to Western Civilisation. The Decline of the West was a best-seller in the 1920s, and one of the most widely discussed intellectual works of the inter-war era. As late as the 1950s, it was a favourite of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets (Kerouac took the word fellaheen from Spengler). But the latent pessimism - combined with some of the odder aspects of the book - put Spengler out of synch with later, more optimistic, social attitudes (the fact that he was an anti-democratic, anti-liberal reactionary with some weird mystical tendencies probably didn't help either). Today, it seems the only people who bother with him are far-right dingbats, who use him to buttress their notion of a decadent West under siege from Islam/cultural enemies - a situation which is criminally unfair. Spengler's politics were old-school hard-right conservative (in the continental European sense), but he was no fan of Hitler's National Socialism, which he did live to see. And, yes, his methodology is less standard history, and more something profoundly... odd, but it's an interesting oddness, if nothing else. 

In a nutshell, Spengler's thesis is that all human cultures have a life-cycle, from birth to death - a cycle that works itself out over 1000-1500 years - and one that is essentially predetermined. As such, he believes that if you compare different cultures at different stages of development, one can discern similarities (or in the case of Western Civilisation, make predictions about its eventual fate). The Decline of the West is accordingly a gigantic analogy-making exercise, taking figures and events from Western Civilisation, and comparing them with Classical, Middle-Eastern, Egyptian, and Chinese equivalents (with occasional references in passing to India, the Babylonians, and the Aztecs). This is what I mean when I say that The Decline of the West is not a history book - it does not seek to detail events or explain them in their own terms, but rather it uses events to reinforce the analogy. Not just events either - Spengler actually starts off the first volume by comparing Classical approaches to mathematics with those in the modern West, and from there looks at comparative art, architecture, music, law, physics, religion, philosophy, linguistics, political science, and economics, amongst other subjects. Spengler had broad interests...

The secondary thesis in the book is that everything about a culture is determined by its defining "spirit" (meant in a highly mystical sense). In contrast to the Nazis, Spengler's view of culture is that such groups are not biological or ethnically based (and he uses the word 'race' in a completely different sense from every other commentator, then or now). Rather, a Spenglerian culture is representative of a particular way of viewing the world, a world-view that manifests itself in literally everything a culture does, from its art, to its science, to its technology, to its spirituality, to its language. Spengler is an extreme cultural relativist - there are no universal human truths, and no human culture is superior to any other (who is doing the judging anyway?). Nor is he really portraying the Darwinian struggle for survival the far-right like to invoke. Different cultures have different ways of viewing things, which leads to distrust and misunderstandings, and concepts being twisted, but there is no inherent need for every culture to be at each other's throat.

Spengler sees the defining trait of the post-1000 West as a restless and ultimately futile pursuit of the infinite - ergo, he refers to the West as the 'Faustian' Culture (Spengler was thinking of Goethe's Faust, with his commitment to endless striving, but the Marlowe Faust works too... a culture that sells its soul for temporary power). The Classical culture of Greece and Rome is, by contrast, labelled 'Apollonian' - and Spengler spends a lot of time, especially in the first volume, arguing that Apollonian and Faustian world-views are utterly different. Seriously: it is one of his intellectual pet-peeves that people consider the modern West a revival of Greco-Roman civilisation, rather than a completely different entity. The Middle-East (which includes Jews, Muslims, early Christians, and Byzantines) is the 'Magian' culture - and, incidentally, Spengler regards the correct analogy for the Prophet Mohammed as Martin Luther, not Jesus. All told, the Decline of the West is notable for some extremely eccentric terminology (don't get me started on Spengler's use of the word 'socialism'), which does not help the book's accessibility, when so much of it is already devoted to obscure analogies.

Now for the fun bit. As mentioned, Spengler uses his analogy system to compare the life-cycle of cultures. Specifically, he uses a seasonal metaphor, with Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Under his framework, the Faustian Culture (the West) has passed into Winter, and from his 1918 viewpoint, he has made the following predictions about the coming centuries in the West:

  • The twentieth century will see a succession of gigantic conflicts.
  • The rise of massive 'world cities', specifically ones housing 10-20 million people by the twenty-first century.
  • Such world cities will be extremely cosmopolitan.
  • Universality in values between these cities.
  • Art becomes increasingly a re-tread/commentary on what came before (basically, as the culture grows old and ossified, its creativity dies with it).
  • Science (as distinct from technology) becomes increasingly about refining what came before, rather than anything groundbreaking.
  • Democracy becomes ever-more blatant plutocracy (Spengler strongly dislikes democracy generally).
  • Drop-off in voting.
  • Drop-off in birth-rates.
  • Political parties lose interest in actual policies, and become increasingly vehicles for individuals to get power for themselves.

Spengler saw the West in the twenty-first century as analogous to the Romans in the first century B.C. A dysfunctional plutocratic democracy gets replaced by authoritarian Caesarism/strong-men figures (he explicitly puts about two centuries between Napoleanism and Caesarism). Future centuries will see the system become ever more crudely despotic, with powerful individuals literally fighting it out for control of the stagnating Empire. Charming. :)

(He also suggests that the next culture will arise in Russia at some point in the next five hundred years. Spengler puts Russia generally outside the West, arguing that leaders from Peter the Great to the Bolsheviks were imposing Faustian ideas on a non-Faustian people).

So yeah. Spengler. Even if you consider him a bit mad, he's at least interestingly mad. Anyone else read him?

 

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I get what you (or rather Spengler) mean by labeling the western civilization “faustian”. Could you, if it is not to bothersome, describe what characterized some of the others like the “appolonian”, “magian” and some more. I now this is not real historical science, but this kind of thing really stimulates the epic fantasy reader (maps and appendix) in me. 

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Apollonian: static, two-dimensional (hence Euclidean geometry), no 'history' focus, interested in proportions and unified wholes, and the human as a body among other bodies. Art associated with the nude statue (as opposed to Faustian music), and the city as the social unit.

Magian: the world as a cavern (Spengler's term, not mine). Angels, demons, all-powerful God, beyond human understanding (humans can't struggle, a la Faust, but must submit to God). Manichean dualism - good versus evil at war for the human soul. Social unit is the collection of religious believers (ergo, no separation of Church and State).  

The others are treated much more briefly.

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According to my kindle, I got through about one third (but this might be only the first volume). Most of his main points are already made in these sections, though. It's fascinating, but also dense and I got stuck last summer or so.

Spengler was fairly odd already within his time and he is virtually incompatible to any academic history or philosophy or social science of today. I should probably continue reading and see if he can make me believe that the "oriental" cultures of Jews, Muslims and "Byzantines" could be plausibly seen as one culture like the Greco-Roman Antiquity.  He seems to ignore the seemingly obvious continuities although like Nietzsche he certainly has a good point in criticizing the 19th century appropriation of what they took for classical culture. In the ancient world the foil for the Greek classical culture that is "living in the now" was the Egyptian culture with their focus on Death and Eternity.

I guess Goethe was his hero because the latter was also a polymath of some kind and held to a strongly holist, "organic" view of everything. OTOH Goethe was not pessimist, I think and could also be quoted as an example how the Western Faustian culture could conserve lots of the classical equanimity (not only classical learning).

As you point out, it seems also strange that today's conservatives claim him as their own. If Spengler is only somewhat correct a restauratio imperii or even keeping the status quo is a completely futile and foolish endeavour.

Even if one follows Spengler one should be wary about the timescale, I guess. But if Alexander = Napoleon Bonaparte and we are now in the first century BC or maybe around 0 AD we would still have about one century of some kind of expansion of the West (if we take the largest extension of the Roman Empire at ca. 100 AD) or in any case about 4 centuries of decline that would still be quite splendid (but also rather horrid) at times. We should also witness already, or maybe in the next few decades the kernel of the next great civilization, be it the rise of a true "Russian" culture Spengler envisioned or something analoguous to the sects and movements of the first century of which the Christians became the one that prevailed.

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Spengler has a chapter on the Magian culture in the second volume. Basically, he is of the viewpoint that the wrong side won the Battle of Actium - the Magian culture (which he compares to a young tree growing in the gigantic shadow of another) was accordingly shaped and stunted by the dying hand of the Apollonian culture, a situation he calls pseudomorphisis. In his view, Islam was simply the Magian culture throwing off the earlier influences, and reaching its fulfilment. I'd imagine he'd say that the coming Russian culture will have a similar pseudomorphisis experience, this time from the Faustian culture.

For a quick and dirty Spenglerian analysis, there are three charts at the end of the first volume, where he compares and contrasts various civilisations in table format.

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@Marquis de Leech: Are you familiar at all with Jonathan Theodore? (Not sure why your name is underlined. That's...weird.) 

Am reading a book of his at the moment that, based on what you've written, might make for an interesting complementary text. 

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On 4/17/2019 at 12:55 AM, The Marquis de Leech said:

Now for the fun bit.

Makes me wonder if Walter Benjamin ever read him. Or Levi-Strauss. Or Gilbert Highet. 

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Thanks for the explanation, Marquis. The name magian makes it sound as if the origins where in Zoroastrian Persia, but Spengler thinks it was a offshoot of the appolonian? Was Persian civilization a totally different one?

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10 hours ago, IlyaP said:

@Marquis de Leech: Are you familiar at all with Jonathan Theodore? (Not sure why your name is underlined. That's...weird.) 

Am reading a book of his at the moment that, based on what you've written, might make for an interesting complementary text. 

No, I'm not. I'll follow up the recommendation.

The follow-up to Spengler that is normally cited is English historian Arnold Toynbee, back in the era when notions of cyclical history were in their heyday.

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6 hours ago, Nabarg said:

Thanks for the explanation, Marquis. The name magian makes it sound as if the origins where in Zoroastrian Persia, but Spengler thinks it was a offshoot of the appolonian? Was Persian civilization a totally different one?

No, Magian is different from Apollonian, not an offshoot. The point is that Magian grew up organically, and collided with the Apollonian, which meant that it took a while to find its feet.

(Spengler appears to lump Persia into the Magian as well. Bearing in mind that his definition of culture is not ethnic or linguistic, but rather based off world-view. Specifically world-view rooted in physical geography. Which throws up some interesting questions as to whether North America is actually Faustian, or just another candidate for pseudomorphisis).

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More, better, bigger, faster, and the self made businessman growing ever richer certainly sounds Faustian. And golden age science fiction seems like a very Faustian kind of literature. 

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kickass, roose.  thanks for writing up.  your recitation reminds me of gobineau.  

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10 hours ago, The Marquis de Leech said:

No, I'm not. I'll follow up the recommendation.

 

:thumbsup:

The book is called 'The Modern Cultural Myth of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'. 

It's fascinating to read alongside Professor Ron Roberts' 'Psychology and Capitalism: The Manipulation of Mind' - there's a bit of overlap in both books about reception versus reception theory and historic influences, and ... well, a lot more. I'm only half way through each book, but they're hugely interesting and would overlap a bit with Spengler's book and theories around this notion of "the west". 

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Posted (edited)
12 hours ago, sologdin said:

kickass, roose.  thanks for writing up.  your recitation reminds me of gobineau.  

Spengler wasn't a fan of Gobineau, or scientific racism generally. He actually addresses the point, and goes on to say that one cannot formulate systematic biological categories of race - under X-rays, we all look the same. 

(Spengler works better as a dystopian conservative version of Karl Marx, with mysticism in place of materialism, and a strange poetic bent).

Edited by The Marquis de Leech

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Posted (edited)

ha nice.  i bet.

gobineau is a fun project, if you're in the mood to abuse yourself with trashy rightwing ideas.  his ideas on 'race,' as we might have expected, completely want rigor.  he thinks, for instance, that "the man of a decadent time, the degenerate man properly so called, is a different being, from the racial point of view, from the heroes of the great ages"--this is no accident; he marks out 'race' as a matter of historical context, rather than essential hypostasis, relying upon the external markers of so-called 'civilization': "for it is only by the existence in some measure, or the complete absence, of this attribute that I can gauge the relative merits of the different races." all of his talk of 'blood' is metaphorical.

a metaphysical doctrine of 'race' is something more like heidegger--though jean luc nancy, in the banality of heidegger (best title, maybe?), says that "in the end, the displacement of ‘biological’ racism into a metaphysics of the races perhaps does not displace much at all" in heidegger, who is just as coarse and asinine as gobineau, ending up in the same fear of 'deracialization' and the end of whiteness and the rest.  

both heidegger and gobineau come to a pseudo-spenglerian point that the 'west' must perish--gobineau because white people will degenerately mix themselves out of existence and therefore end civilization (it's an explicit organic metaphor), and heidegger because judaism means mixing and mixing means an "indistinction of peoples in a humanity that does not place high enough the humanitas of man" (that's JLN again).  heidegger's ideas are not organicist, i don't think--it's more that his idea of the heraclitean polemos is disrupted by jewish egalitarianism, a de-differentiation that is bad for the reasons stated in the protocols of the learned elders, basically, which heidegger adopts rhetorically.

i suppose i should more closely at spengler. cheers.

Edited by sologdin

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Ah, well, read through that thing back in my teens or so. If you are a cultivated German you do that ;-).

But, honestly, the idea is pretty much worthless. Cultures simply are not analogous to biological organism and if you buy into that idea you risk becoming a defeatist for no good reason.

And I'm not really sure now that he had much general insight. If I recall my Nietzsche correctly, then a lot of his cultural concepts are rip-offs from 'Die Geburt der Tragödie'.

But if one is into right-wing 'intellectualism' and 'Ethnopluralism' one can find all that in Spengler's mind.

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