I’ve been slowly reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler with a couple of friends. We meet online once a week to discuss the pages we’ve read. What follows is an explanation of Spengler as I understand him so far, though I expect to find I’ve missed many nuances and even got some of this completely backwards. If there are any Spengler enthusiasts out there who would like to offer corrections I’d be very grateful. Meanwhile I’ll stumble on.
In the book, Spengler is looking for the meaning of this period of history: c.1800-2000, West Europe and North America (Or the “West”). Notice this period is defined spatially as well as temporally: according to Spengler’s strange concept of historical development, we in the West don’t really belong to the same period as those in c.1800-2000 China, c.1800-2000 India, and so on. Our culture has its own life and specificity, and it is really useless to lump together all the cultures in the whole world when trying to do history, since study of history is study of the life of a culture. (This makes Spengler’s notion of what it means to do “world-history” an interesting and paradoxical one, but this is a story for another time.)
So what is it that defines c.1800-2000 West? According to Spengler, it’s our view of the Classical world: Greece and Rome. We in the West have a special relationship with Greece and Rome, as no other culture has had with another culture. Spengler says we have projected our own spiritual concerns onto Greece and Rome and understand ourselves through them. So what is it about them?
Spengler tells us that, viewed correctly, Greece and Rome have a parallel development to Western culture. Greece created a culture of living forms – myths, gods, artistic techniques – and the Romans inherited these forms but added nothing to them so that the forms died, but were preserved in death. Though Rome might appear to be a continuation of Greek culture, in fact Roman civilisation merely preserved Greek culture, using Greek religious and artistic symbols as it continued its business of conquering the world. Rome was a “civilisation” and not a living “culture” of its own, in Spengler’s eyes, because it turned away from creating living forms and instead focused on the forms of living death: money and power.
We in the c.1800-2000 West are in a “Roman” phase, we might say. All the great cultural innovations have passed – political ideas of freedom as self-determination and absence of slavery (liberté), inventions such as the printing press as symbols for a levelling of society (égalité) the spiritual ideas of Christianity preserved in a humanistic form (fraternité) – and now c.1800-2000 we hold onto these ideas in their fixed forms as we worry about how to make ourselves richer and more powerful. Hence you can explain all recent wars in terms of economics, and the “freedom” that our leaders often claim they are promoting by their wars is the 200 year old notion of freedom that came out of our culture while it still lived. We no longer live within this notion of freedom, since we don’t often trouble ourselves to struggle with the difficult concepts of freedom as philosophers did while our world was still inflamed by the impact of the French Revolution: we tend to accept these philosophical ideas passively and hold them up as relics of a past that we are proud of. Now these ideas exist merely to preserve our more mundane and mercantile purposes.
So this is the import of that word in the title of Spengler’s book: “decline.” Just as the Roman Empire brought about the end of Greek culture, but then continued for centuries to spread even though it had stopped developing, so the West of c.1800-2000 has brought its own past cultural development to an end, and though Western civilisation will continue for a long time, nothing new can come of it. Strive for money and power by all means, Spengler seems to be saying, since this is what it means to live in the c.1800-2000 West, but don’t expect to produce anything new and wonderful by this. If you want to see where we’re heading, Spengler is suggesting, just take a look at the history of the later Roman Empire and you’ll get some idea.