Review: The Decline of the West (1918-1923)

After a good fortnight’s reading, I have finished 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 – arguably a forgotten classic – so I have decided to review a work few now bother with. In recent years The Decline of the West has even become strangely topical, but we’ll get to that.

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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 and experience into a single 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. Think of him as a dystopian conservative version of Karl Marx, and you would not be far wrong, though there is a strange poetry to Spengler that one rarely sees in such meaty works (the German title literally translates as The Going Down of the Evening Lands).

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 – there’s at least one academic article on Spenglerian influences in The Lord of the Rings. As late as the 1950s, The Decline of the West 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 the book are far-right dingbats, who use him to buttress their notion of a decadent West under siege from Islam and cultural enemies – a situation that 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 predetermined cycle that works itself out over 1000-1500 years. 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 phenomena 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). Remember, 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, cement, and justify the analogy the author is making. Nuance is sacrificed in the name of building this cathedral-like framework. Nor does Spengler content himself with massaging history for his own ends – he starts off the first volume by comparing Classical approaches to mathematics with those in the modern West, and over the course of the book he 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, where the soul of a people is rooted in the soil itself. Yes, this does seem creepy to modern eyes, but it is not as bad as it sounds. Spengler’s cultures are not biologically or ethnically based – he actually spends time attacking the ‘scientific racism’ of his era, and he uses the word ‘race’ in a completely different sense from every other commentator, then or now. Specifically, a Spenglerian culture is representative of a particular way of viewing the world. This world-view then 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, even in science, and no human culture is superior to any other (who is doing the judging anyway?). Nor does he fetishise a cultural Darwinian struggle for survival. Different cultures have different ways of viewing things, which leads to misunderstandings, and concepts being twisted, but there is no inherent need for every culture to be at each other’s throat. Besides, the rise and fall of a Spenglerian culture is grimly deterministic, and there is nothing one can do to escape this societal life-cycle.

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 the character’s commitment to endless striving, but the Marlowe Faust works too… a culture that sells its soul for temporal 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 or continuation of Greco-Roman civilisation via the Ancient/Medieval/Modern division, rather than a completely different entity. The Middle-East (which includes Jews, Muslims, early Christians, and Byzantines) is categorised as 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 makes predictions about the coming centuries in the West, some of which include:

  • 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.
  • ‘Universalism’ (inverted quotes. Spengler believes in cultural subjectivity).
  • 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 ground-breaking.
  • Democracy becomes ever-more blatant plutocracy (Spengler strongly dislikes democracy generally, and paints an image of the press manipulating public opinion, a la Lord Northcliffe).
  • 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 sees the West in the twenty-first century as analogous to the Romans in the first century B.C.. He envisages a dysfunctional plutocratic democracy getting replaced by authoritarian Caesarism and ‘strong man’ figures (he even 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 a stagnating Empire long since exhausted of ideas. Charming. :)

(He also suggests that the next great 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’s The Decline of the West. A peculiar, highly idiosyncratic book that, whatever its flaws, is like nothing else I have ever read. Plenty of intellectual food for thought here, even if you regard his mystical methodology as hogwash, and one that will definitely affect the way in which you view the world. Somehow, I think Oswald Spengler would find the early twenty-first century most interesting.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Decline of the West (1918-1923)

  1. I’ve always considered Spengler’s assertions, even at their best researched, to be warmed-over Hegelian tripe.

    It’s always been fashionable trying to find a vindication for the notion of “history repeats”, “history is cyclical”, “history is based on this or that template” – because the human mind is wired to find patterns in nearly everything, from notions of time and history, to the effects of pareidolia and so on, and convince itself of some “great truth” based on a wishful thinking reading of a pattern.

    At the time Spengler wrote his doorstopper, people were still utterly willing to believe in spiritism and spirit photography, in the blatantly racialist notion that certain human phenotypes are “lesser”, “not even human”, and the less said about confused attitudes about democracy even on the old continent, the better. Neither Germany, nor France had democracy as we understand it today, nationalism was still often a secular religion to an extent that hasn’t resurfaced even until now, and I could go on. Generally, while good research and good philosophy was being done, there was also a lot of absolute garbage coming out of the early 20th century, and I am still surprised some of it is considered “classic” – not for actual quality reasons of writing and research and understanding, but for political and ideological reasons (proverbial stroking of one’s egos). The fact that Spengler was what he was, even for his time, and that he’s become some twisted “required reading” poster boy of anti-democratic totalitarians, doesn’t help his case in my personal view. Yes, The Decline of the West might have been novel for its day and it’s right no culture ultimately lasts forever, but I don’t like the notion it’s some lost misunderstood classic that should be reembraced. To me, it’s no better than the obvious bias of Hegel, or Marx, Schopenhauer, or Heidegger. Every single philosopher has their biases, but I’m more amenable to ones who don’t lay it on thick and bother to explore some subtleties and ideally their own biases as thinkers and authors.

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  2. Pingback: Writing the Decline: Tolkien vs Spengler (and Michael Potts) | A Phuulish Fellow

  3. Spengler always drew the ire of the Academy, first in 1920s Germany with the Streit um Spengler, then (for example) in the attacks by Collingwood. He rates a dishonourable mention in Popper’s “Poverty of Historicism” and maybe label fits. However, I think he was more of a rebel against the mainline German Idealists (Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel and their ancestor Plato) then he himself could acknowledge. This is my own loose translation of some remarks in DOTW Chapter 1:

    “A becoming, felt with a deep wordless understanding, can only be experienced by living. Long ago this was a source of perplexity to the Platonists with their baneful doctrine that for the full‑wise there could be no becoming, only a being (or having-become). But no‑one inquired why life engraved its traces just where, and when, in what form, and for what space of time it did; or what strangely-constituted necessity, so alien to the causal, was at work.”

    Again, his relativist program is decidedly anti-Idealist (in a particular sense)

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