The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler (Oct 2015)

The Decline of the West
By Oswald Spengler
The Modern Library published by Random House, Inc. (Abridged Edition) by Helmut Werner

This is an extremely interesting work. I was introduced to it in high school in the early 60s. It is a harder than average read and on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most difficult it would probably rate a 7 or maybe 8. As ponderous as the Bible is it is very simple compared to this. Spengler was brilliant and his knowledge of history was immense. I enjoy history and I found numerous places, people and peoples I never heard of. His opening sentence in the introduction, which is chapter 1, states: “In this book is attempted for the first time the venture of predetermining history, of following the still untraveled stages in the destiny of a Culture, and specifically the only Culture of our time and on our planet which is actually in the phase of fulfillment – the West European – American.” The last quote at the end of this review is, fittingly, the last paragraph in the book.

There is no doubt in any knowledgeable person as to whether the West is declining or not. It most certainly is. He is attempting to, as he said, predetermine history. His feeling is Europe and the United States are declining but he gives hope in his philosophy that the US does not have to decline with it. As the events of the Middle East and the crises of refugees flooding into Europe clearly show Europe is in for a bad time. The US has the ability to prevent its following the same path.

I found his concept of predetermining history interesting because the Foundation science fiction series by Isaac Asimov deals with that same concept. Spengler wrote The Decline of the West before 1917 but it was not published until after World War I. Asimov wrote his science fiction series beginning with Foundation (the first in the series) in 1951. The Foundation series revolves around a figure named Hari Seldon, a mathematician, and the time setting is thousands of years in the future when humanity has settled the entire galaxy and there exists The Galactic Empire. The empire was collapsing and Seldon knew it and developed the theory of Psychohistory in an attempt to minimize the barbarism that would result from the collapse. In the Prologue to the second book, Foundation and Empire, Psychohistory is explained in a paragraph. “Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a rebound of a billiard ball. The reaction of one man could be forecast by no known mathematics; the reaction of a billion is something else again.
Back to The Decline of the West. From the Editor’s Preface to the German-language abridged edition of The Decline of the West:

“The present abridged edition has been prepared for the sake of the intellectually alert reader who, today, is prevented by the pressing claims of his professional and civic responsibilities from reading the more monumental works outside his increasingly narrowing special field. To fill a genuine need by opening the way to a significant contemporary work, it became necessary and possible to set aside such scruples as might, in principle, assert themselves against the abridgment of an original creation.”

“Like every daring conception, The Decline of the West calls for readers with a wide intellectual horizon and a certain equanimity of spirit. Even a condensed version will not lessen the demands upon the reader in this respect. …….. The debate over Spengler has slackened not because his work has been superseded, but because everywhere an irresistible conviction has been making itself felt that Spengler “might have been right after all.” ……… But the importance of Spengler does not rest on the fact that, within the space of fifty years since the conception of his work, many events have confirmed his predictions. ……………….. it has become apparent today more than ever how much Spengler’s world view represents the living spirit, and his epistemology, the philosophical style of our epoch. His work having been suppressed after 1933, and at first unwelcome after 1945, it is hoped that this edition may now assist even younger readers to order the wealth, or perhaps the burden, of their recent experience and of the present world confusion into a convincing design profoundly realistic and close to life.”

 

Chapter 1: INTRODUCTION

“In this book is attempted for the first time the venture of predetermining history, of following the still untraveled stages in the destiny of Culture, and specifically the only Culture of our time and on our planet which is actually in the phase of fulfillment – the West European – American.”

“Is there a logic of history? Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of the separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity,…..? Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions? And if so, what are the limits to which reasoning from such premises may be pushed?”

“Thus our theme, which originally comprised only the limited problem of present-day civilization, broadens itself into a new philosophy – the philosophy of the future, so far as the metaphysically exhausted soil of the West can bear such, and in any case the only philosophy which is within the possibilities of the West European mind in its next stages.”

“Amongst the Western peoples, it was the Germans who discovered the mechanical clock, the dread symbol of the flow of time, and the chimes of countless clock towers that echo day and night over West Europe………..”

“Mankind,” however, as no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids. ”Mankind,” is a zoological expression, or an empty word.”

“… the very problem that we are living through today with hardly the remotest conception of its immensity. In place of a world, there is a city, a point, in which the whole life of broad regions is collecting while the rest dries up. In place of a type-true people, born of and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, religionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman and especially that highest form of countryman, the country gentleman.”

“To the world city belongs not a folk but a mob.”

“A small number of superior heads, whose names are very likely not the best known, settle everything, while below them are the great mass of second rate politicians – rhetors, tribunes, deputies, journalists –selected through a provincially conceived franchise to keep alive the illusion of popular self determination.”

” Considered in itself, the Roman world dominion was a negative phenomenon, being the result not of a surplus of energy on the one side – that the Romans had never had since Zama – but a deficiency of resistance on the other. That the Romans did not conquer the world is certain; they merely took possession of a booty that lay open to everyone.”

“In concluding this Introduction, I may be permitted to add a personal note. In 1911, I proposed to myself to put together some broad considerations on the political phenomena of the day in their possible developments. At that time the World War appeared to me both as imminent and also as the inevitable outward manifestation of the historical crisis, and my endeavor was to comprehend it from an examination of the spirit of the preceding centuries – not years.”

“Thereafter I saw the present – the approaching World War – in quite other light. It was no longer a momentary constellation of casual facts due to national sentiments, personal influences or economic tendencies endowed with an appearance of unity and necessity by some historian’s scheme of political or social cause-and-effect, but the type of a historical change of phase occurring within a great historical organism of definable compass at the point preordained for it hundreds of years ago.”

Chapter IX: SOUL IMAGE AND LIFE-FEELING Buddhism, Stoicism, Socialism

“Western mankind, without exception, is under the influence of an immense optical illusion. Everyone demands something of the rest. We say “thou shalt” in the conviction that so-and-so in fact will, can and must be changed or fashioned or arranged conformably to the order, and our belief both in the efficacy of, and in our title to give, such orders is unshakable.”

“What we have entirely failed to observe is the peculiarity of moral dynamics. If we allow that Socialism (in the ethical, not the economic, sense) is that world-feeling which seeks to carry out its own views on behalf of all, that we are all without exception, willingly or no, wittingly or no, Socialists” [Now keep in mind he said in the Ethical NOT the economic sense that we associate it with today]

“There are as many morales as there are Cultures, no more and no fewer.”
“Let us, once more, review Socialism (independently of the economic movement of the same name) as the Faustian example of Civilization-ethics. Its friends regard it as the form of the future, its enemies as a sign of downfall, and both are equally right.”

“Socialism – in its highest and not its street-corner sense – is like every other Faustian ideal, exclusive. It owes its popularity only to the fact that it is completely misunderstood even by its exponents, who presented it as a sum of rights instead of as one of duties,…………”

Chapter X: FAUSTIAN AND APOLLINIAN NATURE-KNOWLEDGE

“In the first generations of the Imperial Age, the antique polytheism gradually dissolved, often without any alteration of outward ritual and mythic form,……”
“Atheism is a subject that the psychologist and the student of religion have hitherto regarded as scarcely worth careful investigation. Much has been written and argued about it, and very roundly, by the free thought martyr on the one hand and the religious zealots on the other.”

“It remains now to sketch the last stage of Western science. From our standpoint of today, the gently sloping route of the client is clearly visible.”

“In this very century, I prophesy, the century of scientific critical Alexandrianism, of the great harvests of the final formulations, a change of feeling will overcome the will to victory of science. Exact science must presently fall upon its own keen sword.”

“Science exists only in the living thought of great savant generations, and books are nothing if they are not living and effective in men worthy of them. Scientific results are merely items of an intellectual tradition.”

“The separate sciences – epistemology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy – are approaching one another with acceleration, converging towards a complete identity of results.”

Chapter XI: ORIGIN AND LANDSCAPE The Cosmic and the Microcosm

“REGARD the flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. ……….. The dumb forest, the silent meadows, this bush, that twig, do not stir themselves, it is the wind that plays with them. Only the little gnat is free – he dances still in the evening light, he moves whither he will.”

“A plant is nothing on its own account. It forms a part of the landscape in which a chance made it take root. The twilight, the chill, the closing of every flower – these are not cause-and-effect, not danger and willed answer to danger. They are a single process of nature, which is accomplishing itself near, with, and in the plant. The individual is not free to look out for itself, will for itself, or choose for itself.”

“An animal, on the contrary, can choose. It is emancipated from the servitude of all the rest of the world. This midget swarm that dances on and on, that solitary bird still flying through the evening, the fox furtively approaching the nest – these are little worlds of their own within another great world. An animalcule in a drop of water, too tiny to be perceived by the human eye, though it lasts but a second and has but a corner of this drop as its field – nevertheless is free and independent in the face of the universe. The giant oak, upon one of those leaves the droplet hangs, is not.”

“Servitude and freedom – this is in last and deepest analysis the differentia by which we distinguish vegetable and animal existence. Yet only the plant is wholly and entirely what it is; in the being of the animal there is something dual. A vegetable is only a vegetable; an animal is a vegetable and something more besides. A herd that huddles together trembling in the presence of danger, a child that clings weeping to its mother, a man desperately striving to force a way into his God – all these are seeking to return out of the life of freedom into the vegetal servitude from which they were emancipated into individuality and loneliness.”

Chapter XII: ORIGIN AND LANDSCAPE The Group of the Higher Cultures

“There is no more conclusive refutation of Darwinism than that furnished by paleontology. Simple probability indicates that fossil hoards can only be test samples. Each sample, then, should represent a different stage of evolution, and there ought to be merely “transitional” types, no definition and no species. Instead of this we find perfectly stable and unaltered forms persevering through long ages, forms that have not developed themselves on the fitness principle, but appear suddenly and at once in their definitive shape; that do not thereafter evolve towards better adaptation, but become rarer and finally disappear, while quite different forms crop up again.”

“As for mankind, discoveries of the Diluvial age indicate more and more pointedly that the man-forms existing then correspond to those living now; there is not the slightest trace of evolution towards a race of greater utilitarian “fitness.” And the continued failure to find man in the Tertiary discoveries indicates more and more clearly that the human life-form, like every other, originates in a sudden mutation of which the “whence,” “how” and “why” remain an impenetrable secret. If, indeed, there were evolution in the English sense of the word, there could be neither defined earth-strata nor specific animal classes, but only a single geological mass and a chaos of living singular forms which we may suppose to have been left over from the struggle for existence. But all that we see about us impels us to the conviction that again and again profound and very sudden changes take place in the being of plants and animals, changes which are of a cosmic kind and nowise restricted to the Earth’s surface,………

“Chance decreed that the heavy attacks of the Huns should break themselves in vain upon the Chinese Limes, which at each crisis found a strong emperor to defend it. The decisive repulse of the Huns took place in 124 – 119 under the Chinese Trajan, Wu Ti; and it was he, too, who finally incorporated Southern China in the Empire, with the object of obtaining a route into India, and built a grand embattled road to the Tarim. And so the Huns turned westward, and in due course they appear, impelling a swarm of Germanic tribes, in face of the Limes of the Roman world. This time they succeeded. The Roman imperium collapsed,………….”

“Meantime yet another new Culture developed in Mexico. This lay so remote from the rest that no word even passed between them. All the more astonishing, therefore, is the similarity of its development to that of the Classical. No doubt the archaeologist standing before a teocalli would be horrified to think of his Doric Temple in such a connexion; yet it was a thoroughly Classical trait – feebleness of the will-to-power in the matter of technics – that kept the Aztecs ill armed and so made possible their catastrophe.”

For, as it happens, this is the one example of a Culture ended by violent death. It was not starved, suppressed or thwarted, but murdered in the full glory of its unfolding, destroyed like a sunflower whose head is struck off by one passing. All these states – including a world power and more than one Federation – with an extent and resources far superior to those of the Greek and Roman states of Hannibal’s day; with a comprehensive policy, a carefully ordered financial system and a highly developed legislation; with administrative ideas and economic tradition such as the ministers of Charles V could never have imagined; with a wealth of literature in several languages, an intellectually brilliant and polite society in great cities to which the West could not show one single parallel – all this was not broken down in some desperate war, but washed out by a handful of bandits in a few years, and so entirely that the relics of the population retained not even a memory of it all. Of the giant city Tenochtitlan not a stone remains aboveground. The cluster of great Mayan cities in the virgin forests of Yucatán succumbed swiftly to the attack of vegetation, and we do not know the old name of any one of them. Of the literature three books survive, but no one can read them.”

“The most appalling feature of the tragedy was that it was not in the least a necessity of the Western Culture that it should happen. It was a private affair of adventurers, and at the time no one in Germany, France or England had any idea what was taking place.”

“………The great Maya cities sink into the same bland contentment as Roman Athens and Alexandria, but out of the horizon of the Nahua lands was developing the last of these peoples, the Aztecs – young, vigorous, barbaric and filled with an insatiable will-to-power. In 1325 they founded Tenochtitlan, which soon became the paramount and capital city of the whole Mexican world. About 1400 military expansion began on the grand scale. Conquered regions were secured by military colonies and a network of military roads, and a superior diplomacy kept the dependent states in check and separated.”

Chapter XIII: CITIES AND PEOPLE

“At this level all Civilizations enter upon a stage, which lasts for centuries, of appalling depopulation. The whole pyramid of cultural man vanishes. It crumbles from the summit, first the world-cities, then the provincial farms and finally the land itself, whose best blood as incontinently poured into the towns, merely to bolster them up for a while. At the last, only the primitive blood remains, alive, but robbed of its strongest and most promising elements. This residue is the Fellah type.”

“If the Maya population literally vanished within a very short time after the Spanish conquest, and their great empty cities were reabsorbed by the jungle, this does not prove merely the brutality of the conqueror – which in this regard would have been helpless before the self-renewing power of a young and fruitful Culture-mankind – but an extinction from within that no doubt had long been in progress.”

“Consequently we find everywhere in these Civilizations that the provincial cities at an early stage, and the giant cities in turn at the end of the evolution, stand empty, harbouring in their stone masses a small population of fellaheen who shelter in them as the men of the Stone Age sheltered in caves and pile dwellings…….. In a long series of Classical writers from Polybius onword we read of old, renowned cities in which the streets have become lines of empty, crumbling shells, where the cattle browse in forum and gymnasium, and the amphitheater is a sown field, dotted with emergent statues and hermae. Rome had in the fifth century of our era the population of the village, but it’s Imperial palaces were still habitable.”

“This, then, is the conclusion of the city’s history; growing from primitive barter-centre to Culture-city and at last to world-city, it sacrifices first the blood and soul of its creators to the needs of its majestic evolution, and then the last flower of that growth to the spirit of Civilization – and so, doomed, moves on to final-destruction.”

Chapter XVII: THE STATE The Problem of the Estates

“A fathomless secret of the cosmic flowings that we call Life is their separation into two sexes.”

“The feminine stands closer to the Cosmic. It is rooted deeper in the earth and it is immediately involved in the grand cyclic rhythms of nature. The masculine is freer, more animal, more mobile – as to sensation and understanding as well as otherwise – more awake and more tense.”

“The male livingly experiences Destiny, and he comprehends Causality, the causal logic of the Become. The female, on the contrary, is herself Destiny and Time and the organic logic of the Becoming, and for that very reason the principle of Causality is forever alien to her. Whenever Man has tried to give Destiny any tangible form, he has felt it as of feminine form, and he has called it Moirai, Parcae, Norns. The supreme deity is never itself Destiny, but always either its representative or its master – just as man represents or controls woman. Primevally, too, woman is the seeress, and not because she knows the future, but because she is the future. The priest merely interprets the oracle; the woman is the oracle itself, and it is Time that speaks through her.”

“The man makes History, the woman is History.”

“Here, in man and in woman, and two kinds of History are fighting for power. ………… The secret and fundamental war of the sexes has gone on ever since there were sexes, and will continue – silent, bitter, unforgiving, pitiless, – while they continue. In it, too, there are policies, battles, alliances, treaties, treasons.”

Chapter XVIII: STATE AND HISTORY

“In the historical world there are no ideals, but only facts – no truths, but only facts. There is no reason, no honesty, no equity, no final aim, but only facts, and anyone who does not realize this should write books on politics – let him not try to make politics.”

“The destiny question, for States that exist in reality and not merely in intellectual schemes, is not that of their ideal task or structure, but that their inner authority, which cannot in the long run be maintained by material means, but only by a belief – of friend and foe – in their effectiveness. The decisive problems lie, not in the working out of constitutions, but in the organization of a sound working government; not in the distribution of political rights according to “just” principles (which at bottom are simply the idea that a class forms of its own legitimate claims),……………..”

“There is no best, or true, or right State that could possibly be actualized according to plan. Every State that emerges in history exists as it is but once and for a moment; the next moment it has, unperceived, become different, whatever the rigidity of its legal-constitutional crust.”

“The State, with its heavy demands on each individual in it, is felt by urban reason to be a burden.”

“In the form of democracy, money has won. There has been a period in which politics were almost its preserved. But as soon as it has destroyed the old orders of the Culture, the chaos gives forth a new and overpowering factor that penetrates to the very elementals of Becoming – the Caesar-men. Before them before the omnipotence of money collapses. The Imperial Age, in every Culture alike, signifies the end of the politics of mind and money. The powers of the blood, unbroken bodily forces, resume their ancient Lordship.”

“Once the Imperial Age has arrived, there are no more political problems. People manage when the situation as it is in the powers that be. In the period of Contending States, torrents of blood had reddened the pavements of all world-cities, so that the great truths of Democracy might be turned into actualities, for the winning of rights without which life seemed not worth the living. Now these rights are won, but the grandchildren cannot be moved, even by punishment, to make use of them. A hundred years more, and even the historians will no longer understand the old controversies. Already by Caesar’s time reputable people had almost ceased to take part in the elections. It embittered the life of the great Tiberius that the most capable men of his time held aloof from politics, and Nero could not even by threats compel the Equites to come to Rome in order to exercise their rights. This is the end of the great politics.”

“For world peace – which has often existed in fact – involves the private renunciation of war on the part of the immense majority, but along with this involves an unavowed readiness to submit to being the booty of others who do not renounce it. It begins with the State-destroying wish for universal reconciliation, and it ends in nobody’s moving a finger so long as misfortune only touches his neighbor.”

“With the formed state having finished its course, high history also lays itself down weary to sleep. Man becomes a plant again, adhering to the soil, dumb and enduring. The timeless village and the “eternal” peasant reappear, begetting children and burying seed in Mother Earth – a busy, easily contented swarm, over which the tempest of soldier-emperors passingly blows. In the midst of the land lie the old world-cities, empty receptacles of an extinguished soul, in which a historyless mankind slowly nests itself. Man lives from hand to mouth, with petty thrifts and petty fortunes, and endures.”

Chapter XIX: PHILOSOPHY OF POLITICS

“………………. Even revolutions are no exception, for the “sovereignty of the people” only expresses the fact that the ruling power has assumed the title of people’s leader instead of that of King. The method of governing is scarcely altered thereby, and position of the governed not at all. And even world-peace, in every case where it has existed, has been nothing but the slavery of an entire humanity under the regimen imposed by a few strong natures determined to rule.”

“Politically gifted peoples do not exist. Those which are supposed to be so are simply peoples that are firmly in the hands of a ruling minority and in consequence feel themselves to be in good form.”

Chapter XXI: THE FORM WORLD OF ECONOMIC LIFE The Machine

“For us, however, whom a Destiny has placed in this Culture and at this moment of its development – the moment when money is celebrating its last victories, and the Caesarism that is to succeed approaches with quiet, firm step – our direction, willed and obligatory at once, is set for us within narrow limits, and on any other terms life is not worth the living. We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And the task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him.”